Signs and Signifiers: Our History in Wayfinding

Go to any North American city that’s larger than a few thousand people and you’ll encounter a predictable range of businesses. All will have a grocery store or supermarket, a place to get gas for your car, likely a bank. Larger populations are lucky enough to have a range of shopping options, cafés and restaurants. Pass through even the smallest towns, too small for a single traffic light, and my bet is you’ll find a sign shop. Signs are everywhere. When they’re done well, they become a memorable part of the way we experience places. They’re part of the DNA of our cities.

The origins of our business are rooted in the manufacture and implementation of signs. For much of our 40-year history, we maintained a comprehensive manufacturing shop in the back of our Calgary headquarters. We employed a dedicated team of craftsmen, tradespeople, artists, painters, assembly staff and installers. While the back-of-house shop is long gone and most of the design process now happens in front of screens, our experience in manufacturing, assembling, and installing signs have continued to inform our approach. Just like a chef has a lot to gain by growing their own produce, at Cygnus, our connection to the materials and processes of our trade contribute directly to early brainstorming and concept ideation.

Signage and wayfinding are related terms, often used interchangeably. While signage refers to a physical object, wayfinding is a much broader concept that refers to any number of elements that serve to direct visitors. Signs require craftsmanship, an understanding of materials, finishes, and fabrication techniques. Wayfinding requires an understanding of the way visitors navigate their environments, the challenges they’re likely to encounter, and the decisions they’ll make along the way. Wayfinding relies heavily on signage, but also includes environmental landmarks, architectural cues, and digital tools. As the design industry celebrates wayfinding, turning a loosely defined term into a completely new field of study, we think it’s important to acknowledge the interdependence of concepts and materials, strategy and technique.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of our company. Over this time, materials have changed, but signs are still an integral part of what we do. They are the tactile forms that communicate messages, direct visitors and announce information. Our name Cygnus comes from one of the brightest constellations in the night sky, referencing the important role that stars played in early navigation and exploration. As our projects focus increasingly on our strategic approach to wayfinding design, simplifying complex environments for diverse groups of people, we never stray too far our history. In a way, stars are just signs in the sky.

– Gordon Milne, President & CEO